We decide to go to the movies that afternoon. I want to take my mind off the murders, Paris, and anything else depressing. We choose to see Lord of the Rings part deux at the Metreon, which is a mistake. Not the movie itself which is truly epic in scope and nature, but attending the Metreon where all the beautiful people hang out intermingled with the tourists. The prices are jacked up even higher than normal. There are too many people milling around for my comfort. I am painfully aware during the entire movie that the large man sitting next to me has his meaty arm invading my personal space. To say nothing of his body odor which is pungent. I munch away from an enormous bucket of popcorn until I am sick to my stomach.
Even though I enjoy the movie in all its fantastical glory, I begin to get antsy two-thirds of the way through. I look around the theater and think I see Maria from group. I blink twice, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. I shake my head. Even if it is her, so what? It doesn’t mean she’s following me or that she’s the one who tapped me with her car. I’m just being paranoid, I decide and snuggle further in my seat to avoid looking at the supposed Maria. It’s no use, however; my concentration is shot. I can’t focus on the movie, not even on the scrumptious Orlando Bloom as he does his super-fairy act, because my thoughts keep drifting to the death of Mariah. Of the three murders, hers seems the most senseless to me. I know all lives are created equal and all that blather, but there’s something about the death of a child that really appalls me. It’s presumed that someone cannot do anything to ‘earn’ being murdered in so short a time, therefore her death is a particular tragedy. I don’t know if I agree with that, but the picture of her sticks in my mind.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that she must have overheard something or seen something pertaining to either her mother’s murder or Ashley’s murder. A horrible thought strikes me—what if it’s Leticia or Sergio who killed Rosie, and Mariah discovered something in her aunt’s house that would indict either Leticia or Sergio? That person would have no choice but to eliminate Mariah. I hate being so suspicious, but nearly seventy percent of all murders are committed by someone close to the victim. Who’s closer to Mariah than her aunt and uncle? After a few minutes thought, however, I dismiss the idea. If they wanted to kill their niece, they wouldn’t do it with such a fanfare. They had plenty of opportunities to kill her quietly and make it look natural. It couldn’t be to their benefit to have her death be so publicized—I am relieved to be able to strike their names from my mental suspect list.
“Rainbow, time to go!” I start at the sound of my mother’s voice. The movie is over, and I have missed the last half hour of it. The man next to me is staring at me in disapproval, as if he knows I drifted at the end. My mother and I make our way out of the Metreon and onto the BART. As we near the Mission, I am able to breathe. These are my people—not those poseurs at the Metreon. I smile at everybody rushing by out of sheer gratitude.
“Watch it!” Someone shouts at me as someone, gender unknown but feels like a man, brushes by and tries to snatch my purse. Unfortunately for the would-be mugger, I am one of those women who crosses the strap over my chest so he fails in his aim. Cursing under his breath, the person sprints away. This happens so fast, all I can do is stare at the retreating back.
“Stop that man!” I finally shout, though it’s futile to do so. My attacker is out of sight by the time I gather my wits. I should have added ‘or woman’, but that’s irrelevant now.
“Are you all right?” My mother asks me, patting me on the shoulders, chest, and torso. She’s checking to see if I’m hurt, but I pull away.
“Fine.” I am upset that I didn’t see the person coming—leaving me totally vulnerable to his assault. I open my purse to make sure there’s nothing missing. There isn’t. I shove my hands in my pockets, trying to warm them. There’s something added to my right pocket—a note. I pull it out and unfold it. It says, ‘Stay the fuck away or you won’t be so lucky next time. This is your final warning.’ I quickly fold the note and shove it back into my pocket, struggling to maintain the neutral look on my face.
“What is it?” My mom asks, ever alert to the changes in my expression. She had been looking around for the attacker, but manages to turn around in time to see me frown.
“Nothing.” I make up my mind not to mention the note to her as it would only make her worry more. I don’t fancy hearing again the list of reasons why I should quit the therapy group. “I’m just a little rattled that someone tried to steal my purse.” What bothers me the most is that the mugger took such care to make it appear as if he was trying to snatch my purse down to the cursing after ‘missing’. That spoke of premeditation, as if I couldn’t already discern that from the note.
“We’re going home,” my mother says firmly, tucking her arm through mine. I don’t protest as I’m feeling worn. When we get there, she makes some ginger tea to refresh my spirits.
“I want to check the news,” I say after drinking half my tea. Though my mother looks disapproving, she follows me into the living room where I flip on the television to CNN. They don’t have anything further on the murders, so I turn to a local channel. They are talking about Mariah’s murder, shaking their collective heads as they do. I don’t like their style of reporting—it runs towards lugubrious rather than factual—but it’s the only thing I can find about the newest homicide.
“There were signs of forced entry,” the skinny, Chinese reporter says earnestly, her face pinched and solemn. Every time I look at her, I want to stuff her with mooncakes until she explodes. “Mr. and Mrs. Torres say that nobody has the key to their house other than them. They didn’t hear anything last night while they were sleeping. Back to you, Bill.”
“Thanks, Shelley. There are reports that Mrs. Torres has been taking sleeping pills.” The anchor glances at the teleprompter before continuing. “In other news…” I tune out what he’s saying.
“So it was a stranger,” I say to my mom. I had figure it would be, but it is nice to have some confirmation.
“Or someone familiar trying to make it appear as if it’s a stranger,” my mother points out. I look at her in admiration as I hadn’t thought of that. She preens under my glance before settling her feathers. “I hate the way they drop in information like that at the end as if it were no big deal.” She screws up her face and mimics, “She was addicted to Valium, and in other news.” She stops, looking slightly ashamed of herself, but I’m amused. I like it when my mother drops her hippie edge and gets sarcastic. Then it’s possible to believe that we’re related.
“It must be hell for her,” I say thoughtfully. “Not just because of the Valium thing, but because of where she works. I’m sure some of the people at the clinic are whispering how she couldn’t even keep her own niece alive.”
“That’s not fair,” Mom protests. “She can only do so much. What is she supposed to do? Sleep in the room with the girl?”
“I’m not saying it’s right—just that it’s human nature. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s heartily sick of questions by now.”
“This person has to be stopped,” my mother declares. “It’s getting out of hand.”
We turn off the news, not wanting to be really depressed. It’s seems especially pathetic that Rosie’s son had died from gang violence because that means that all three members of that family were the victims of foul play. What are the odds of that? Three different incidences with grave consequences for the same family. First the son, then the mother, than the daughter. Who is going to be next? The aunt? The uncle? Their children? I am beginning to doubt that the murders have to do with the therapy group, but I can’t totally discount the possibility. I want to talk to Leticia again, but I doubt whether she’ll be in any shape to talk to anyone outside the family. I raise my eyebrows at my mother who understands what I’m trying to convey without words. She nods slightly before retreating to the kitchen to pour us more tea. I find my purse, rummage through it and pull out the sheet of paper with Leticia’s information. My fingers are cold as I dial.
“Hello?” There is a flatness to Leticia’s voice that hadn’t been present even when she was talking about her dead sister. I am ashamed of myself for bothering her in her time of grief, but I rationalize that it’s for a good cause.
“Leticia? It’s Rayne. I talked to you in the coffee shop after your sister died.” I hold my breath, hoping she’ll remember.
“Rayne. Coffee shop.” Not a glimmer of recognition in her voice.
“I attended the same grief therapy group that she did,” I continue, feeling like scum. The silence is so prolonged, I’m beginning to worry that she’s hung up on me. Just as I’m about to stammer my apologies and hang up the phone, she replies.
“You were asking me questions about Rosie.” She sounds proud that she can remember that fact. Her voice quickly loses its bounce as she asks, “Find anything?” It is clear she’s asking simply to be polite—she doesn’t really care. I wonder how much it costs her to get out of bed each morning.
“Um, not really. I just wanted to call, uh, I’m so sorry about your niece!” I blurt out, not knowing what else to say.
“Sergio found her with a rosary clutched in her hands. Someone is mocking our faith. I shouldn’t say this, but Mariah was my favorite niece. She always had a smile and a hug for everyone. When I lost a baby, she was the only person I could stand to be around for the first week.” The words tumble out of Leticia, forming their own eulogy. “She wanted to be a nun when she grew up. A nun! Either that or a teacher. She loved to teach, pretending that her dolls were her students. Even after her mother died, she was a happy child.” Leticia starts weeping while I sit helplessly, clutching the phone. I am disgusted with myself for making this woman go through such pain, even if I am trying to do some good.
“Look, I’m sorry—I should go.” I can’t do this; I don’t know how the police can stand to do this sort of thing day in and day out.
“Please don’t,” Leticia chokes, her voice forlorn. “My husband is not handling this well at all, and I need to talk about Mariah. You’d be doing me a favor.”
Put like that, how could I refuse? I spend the next half an hour listening to tales of Mariah. She was Leticia’s helper around the house. She liked to set the table, to wash dishes, to help fold laundry. She gloried in feminine domesticity without caring if others viewed her as old-fashioned. ‘I’m going to be a good wife and mother,’ she used to tell her aunt, proud of her handiness around the house. She was a bright girl, too, but showed less interest in books and learning than in housework and taking care of her dolls. While Leticia despaired of making her niece a modern girl, she secretly rejoiced in the earthiness of the girl. I remind her that part of the feminist revolution is the right to choose, something many feminists forget. Leticia is grateful that I don’t judge her niece for wanting to be the best girl she could be, for being happy doing girly things. Even many of Leticia’s Latina friends would shake their head when Mariah talked about being a wife and mother if she didn’t become a nun.
“Girls these days have so many opportunities,” her tias clucked, pinching her cheek affectionately. It was the only time Mariah got mad—when adults refused to take her seriously. She would ask Leticia why some of the tias treated her as if she weren’t yet a person. Leticia did her best to explain that they came from the old country where children were cherished, but not necessarily understood. Mariah would listen with a grave look on her face while nodding her head wisely.
“How did she take her mother’s death?” This is delicate territory, but imperative if I’m going to attempt to establish a link between Rosie’s death and her daughter’s.
“She went very still when I told her,” Leticia reports, her tone less emotional. It seems that Mariah wasn’t surprised her mother was murdered. She loved her mother but knew that her mother hadn’t been on the right side of the law since Michael’s death. Mariah had often heard her mother on the phone ask for money in such a way that wasn’t friendly. ‘She knows too much,’ is how Mariah phrased it to her aunt. “The day of Rosie’s murder, Mariah kept saying her mother had finally gone too far.” Leticia is holding nothing back from me now; it’s terrible that her niece had to be killed before she felt comfortable talking.
“What do you think she meant by that?” I try to be as tactful as possible given that we are talking about her dead sister.
“No need to tiptoe,” Leticia says wearily, sniffing a few times. “My sister was a blackmailer.” There. She has said the word so I don’t have to. I am relieved. I’m sure Emily Post would find it in bad taste to accuse a dead person of nefarious deeds, especially to her grieving sister’s face while she’s reeling from the shock of losing her niece in a similar manner. “It’s not her fault. Michael’s murder killed what was good and decent in her. She wasn’t herself when she started blackmailing. I had my suspicions while she was alive, but it wasn’t until she was dead that I knew for sure.”
“How did you confirm your suspicions?” I ask casually. I don’t know how long this fount of information is going to be flowing, so I need to tap into it as quickly as possible. I have a hunch she is going to regret spilling all these details to a virtual stranger when she’s somewhat over the initial shock.
“Found some things in her house,” Leticia says tightly. “After I talked to you the first time.” That answers my question whether she had deliberately lied to me the last time we talked. I’m glad as I like her and wouldn’t want to think she was shining me on. “My own sister! She was a good mother to her children, but the way she went about making money.” I can hear her clicking her tongue. A thought strikes me. How much money did Rosie make from her blackmailing scheme, and who stands to benefit now that Mariah is out of the way?
“She must have been desperate,” I say softly. I don’t want to judge Rosie, especially now that’s she’s dead, but it’s hard not to think her culpable and greedy with her side venture in under-the-table dealings.
“She could have come to me!” Leticia cries. “She knows Sergio and I would have done anything to help her.” I need to steer the conversation back to Mariah, but don’t know how.
“She wanted what was best for Mariah,” I say lamely, aware of the inadequacy of my response.
“And that turned out so well,” Leticia says sarcastically. I wince at the raw pain in her voice. Next thing I know, she’s unloading the guilt she feels because since her sister’s death, she’s had to take Valium to sleep. She heard nothing when her niece was being abducted. My heart hurts just listening to her. There’s nothing I can say that will alleviate such pain, so I keep silent. She seems to be taking comfort from talking to me; I am glad to give her even that little bit of respite. “Mariah told me something odd before she died. She told me the night of her mother’s death, Rosie left the house after she thought Mariah was asleep.” That means that Rosie went to meet her killer, presumably to extort money from him or her. “Did you know that Rosie stopped going to church after her son died?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes. She said she didn’t want to believe in a God who was so cruel. Nothing I said made a difference.”
“Perhaps I should go now,” I say gently, not wanting to intrude any more. “Thank you very much for your time.”
“Thank you for listening,” Leticia replies tearfully. “Call me any time. I like talking to you.” I’m absurdly flattered, even though I’ve done nothing more than listen. I promise to keep in touch, then hang up the phone. Not coincidentally, my mother bustles out of the kitchen as I finish the call. She hands me my mug with a fresh cup of tea. I sip to ease the tension in my shoulders. Mariah Chavez was a real girl to me now, not just a name. That made the tragedy doubly hard to swallow. I fill my mother in on my conversation with Leticia.
“That poor, poor woman,” my mom says sympathetically, shaking her head. “I can’t imagine what she’s going through.”
“Let’s not talk about it any more,” I say firmly. I am about to drown in the pathos, which is the last thing I need. We talk about my mother’s love life instead which is a paradoxical topic for me. On the one hand, I want my mother to date because she deserves to be happy. On the other hand, I’m still Daddy’s girl which means I’m fiercely loyal to my father, my mother’s recent disclosure notwithstanding. I know my mother will never forget my father, but it’s hard to watch her move further away from him with each passing day.
“I miss him, you know,” my mother says, correctly interpreting the look on my face. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about him.” We are quiet for a minute, paying tribute to my father. As usual, I tell him to watch over me and to save a seat for me at the ballgame.
“He was a good man,” I say, my voice trembling slightly. “Everybody makes mistakes.”
“He was a great man,” my mother says firmly, pulling me to her. We sit that way for some time, content just to be in each other’s company.